For anyone who's lived in Los Angeles longer than a decade, it's impossible not to feel caught in some sort of time-warp pulling up to the recently reopened Hotel Bel-Air. The swans still float serenely on the pond and wander the lush grounds, but the first thing you notice aren't the Cygnini, it's the valets: buff, young dudes in striped button-down shirts who look like they just left the Cobra Kai dojo. Like the Karate Kid, Sonny Crockett and Marty McFly, Wolfgang Puck rose to fame in the 1980s, so it makes perfect sense that he'd be helming the renovated Wolfgang Puck at the Hotel Bel-Air.
The restaurant boasts a large patio with alcoves for current and former movie execs to discreetly take business meetings. The bar is casual and open yet intimate enough for a sexy rendezvous. There's also a classic indoor dining room for formal dinners. Puck himself oversaw the menu along with key members of Team Wolfgang including pastry goddess Sherry Yard. Here, the Austrian-born chef sits down to discuss his restaurant empire, the perils of tailoring one's cuisine to a particular city and the challenges of running a hotel restaurant -- even as an old friend stops by the table.
[Photo gallery after the jump.]
Squid Ink: How many restaurants do you have?
Wolfgang Puck: We have right now 20 or so.
SI: You've lost count.
WP: Yeah. [laughing] I don't count.
SI: How do you keep it fresh each time you open a new one?
WP: I think we have a great staff. It's really a collaboration of a lot of people. You always have to keep on working at it. If not, you'll end up just like Chasen's, like Le Dome, like Ma Maison, like Le Restaurant. Every restaurant which was famous when I was here, except maybe for Dan Tana's and Musso & Frank's, are all gone.
SI: With Dan Tana's and Musso & Frank, people go more for the ambiance than the food.
WP: Exactly. It's like going to your country club. You're not going to get good food at the country club, but people still go and hang out.
SI: So how do you keep learning?
WP: I think a lot of things you learn from young people. A lot of things you learn from traveling. But I think an important part is to be willing to learn, to be willing to let people do new things. You can't do everything in life, so it's important to form a great team.
SI: The way you describe it, it sounds a bit like being a director on a film set. You don't have to be the best editor or the best cinematographer, but you have to choose people who are the best at what they do and will carry out your vision.
WP: Exactly. They have to carry out the vision. If I would have to cook every day, I would kill myself. Lee and Sherry and Ray and Ari, they work with me for 15, 20 years, so they think like me. It makes it easier. Martin Scorsese always used to use Michael Ballhaus to shoot his movies because he knew he had the eye. After a while, a collaboration like that makes it really easy; you don't even have to talk.
SI: Are there any chefs you've been inspired by in Los Angeles or elsewhere?
WP: Outside of London, Heston Blumenthal's restaurant, The Fat Duck, is really an amazing place of food and invention. It was the most inspiring one. Not that I would like to do the same thing, but he did it the way he thought a three-star restaurant should be.